Jeremy Olson writes about children and families, and is an overscheduled father of two. His blog tackles the best and worst of parenting, families, health and love. He wants to hear from you - what's going on in your house?

Toxic daughters-in-law?

Posted by: Jeremy Olson Updated: May 23, 2011 - 9:07 PM

Whether the stereotype of overbearing mothers-in-law is grounded in reality, an author of a new book suggests that these women get a bad rap. Author Anne Kathryn Killinger instead raises the concept of "toxic" daughters-in-law, suggesting they damage one out of 10 relationships between husbands and their parents.

Killinger relives the fractured relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, shares anecdotes from other families, and suggests why some women seal off husbands from their parents. Her proposed reasons: feminist attitudes, prejudice, self-doubt, inability to handle new relationships, jealousy, selfishness, superiority, religious differences, need to control, and just plain meanness.

To me, the book, "A Son is a Son Till He Gets a Wife: How Toxic Daughters-in-Law Destroy Families," lacks self-examination. Killinger rarely considers her own contributions to the fractured relationship, instead pondering what she or her husband ever did to offend the daughter-in-law who took away her son. Nor does she conceive of the concept of toxic sons-in-laws, only examining daughters-in-law -- even in gay marriages. 

The book cover pictures a man sitting alone at a park bench -- apparently brooding over the rift between his wife and mother. I want to yell at the guy, "Leave the park already and go talk to your wife and mother about all this!!!!"

Despite my jabs at the book, it raises a fascinating issue -- which reflects the heavy stress that can emerge between married couples and their parents. Kim Lundholm-Eades, a marriage and family therapist in Centerville, Minn., told me this kind of difficulty is common -- for both daughters- and sons-in-law!

"I don’t know that daughter-in-laws have a corner on the market in terms of causing loyalty splits between partners and their parents," said Lundholm-Eades, president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

One solution is self-awareness, she said. "Instead of looking at everyone else and blaming them, how do I look in my own back yard?" Communication is critical, she added, not just with the in-laws but between spouses so that they can make decisions together and present a "united front."

"Where this all gets complicated and difficult is often times the couple hasn't done its work of coming on board together and having that united front -- to be in agreement," she said. "That has to happen first." 

Sons can help by presenting this united front to their parents and asking them to respect the joint decisions they make with their wives. Otherwise, if there is a hint of disagreement, the in-laws will side with their sons and create resentment for their daughters-in-law. 

However, Lundholm-Eades said its important that birth children also allow their spouses to develop their own relationships with their in-laws: "It's similar to when I work with step families and you bring in a step parent. While I encourage the biological parents to be supportive of the step parents, they can undermine the development of the relationship between the parents and the stepchildren by getting in the middle" too much.

As a mother-in-law, Lundholm-Eades understands the delicate balance of the role: "I know that its kind of hard to figure out that balance. What works in my own relationship is to talk and say 'what help do you want from me?' I don’t assume they want me to step in and (my daughter-in-law) wants my advice on raising her kids unless she asks. And if she has an idea, I say 'do you want to hear my thoughts on that?' That’s a very different way of communicating than I think happens a lot of times."

Killinger's book is a sad re-telling of a family relationship that appears beyond repair. (Certainly the writing of this book isn't going to help!) It never really solves why the relationship broke down, but hopefully it gives others food for thought that they can use to strengthen their own families. What do you think? What causes stress between couples and in-laws? And how does that stress get resolved?

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